Tuesday, May 24, 2011

TTYU Retro: Architecture - how it reflects history and culture

How do people build in your world?

In my post about building materials, I started by bringing up the links between architecture and environment/setting. In this post I'm going to talk about the links between architecture and history. The buildings you choose to put in your world will tell readers (and the people of your world) about the history of these people and their civilization.

When we were in Europe we went to the city of Aosta in Italy. This city, we learned, was once called Augusta Praetoria, and was the place where Roman troops stopped for the winter before invading Gaul. It's been the center of its region since then. You wouldn't necessarily know this just by glancing at it from the highway, but if you walk into the town, it's hard to miss. Augustus' Arch, the Praetorian Gate, the Roman Theater... all are easy to access. The theater was great because it had a modern theater built right beside the ancient, crumbling one. Very cool - but that wasn't the most impressive part.

Aosta has a cathedral, built in the 11th century and remodeled a bit in the 15th and 16th centuries. It rises majestically above the roofs of the town - and that's all you see if you just walk by. If you go in, however, you can find the entrance of the church that was built before it, in the 3rd century. The cathedral was built right over the top of the old church, but the arches are still there, the columns and the carved capitals that were made in the years 200. If you then walk out of the cathedral and around the corner, you'll find the entrance to the Roman forum. Yes, the Roman forum is underneath the 3rd century church - and it's huge. It's this gigantic corridor of stone arches, now lit by electric light, and seeming way too huge to exist underneath two other buildings this far underground. I wish I could show you a photograph - but really you should go and see it with your own eyes. This gives the town the sense of permanence that I described in my post about building materials. It is set in stones more than two thousand years old.

How many fantasy or science fiction worlds do you know which have this kind of history reflected in their architecture? My answer would be, not as many as I'd like.

Just in case you're concerned that I'm suggesting everyone create modern Italy in their fictional worlds, that's not it at all. Paris is full of the architecture of other times, even down to the crypts underneath the city. Kyoto, Japan is similar, ranging from the ultra-modern to the ancient.

Kyoto is an interesting example because of the fact that their primary building material is wood, not stone. You can walk through the streets and see modern vending machines just ten feet away from the entrance to a small city shrine or temple. You can park your car (not that I ever had one) in the lot and walk in to see the temple of Sanjusangendo, originally built in the 12th century and containing more than a thousand statues carved in the 12th and 13th centuries. You can go visit the Kiyomizu temple, and then read about it in The Tale of Genji and realize that it wasn't new even in the year 1000, but was built back in the 8th century.

Ok, so at this point I'd like to ask another question. What kind of place doesn't have old buildings? There are several possibilities.

1. A place where people build structures that could potentially be permanent, but where some historical event has destroyed all structures over a certain age.

Tokyo is rather like this. It suffered the Great Kanto Earthquake, and then the carpet-bombings of World War II... and as a result, all of the oldest buildings date from a particular (more modern) era. In a case like this, it's important to consider what kind of impact a very destructive event will have on culture, and what less tangible evidence will be available in the mental states of the population.

2. A place where building materials are quickly broken down by the elements.

Jungle dwellings might well be like this. In this case, other evidence of human history might be available, like tools or artifacts of various types.

3. A place where the population is nomadic.

If the population is nomadic, then habitations have to be light enough to be carried. They may or may not be made from durable enough materials to be recognized as human tools/structures long after they have been abandoned.

4. A place where the cultural paradigm calls for constant renewal.

This is certainly a possibility. However, I can't see that it would make much sense for extremely durable architecture (stone, for example) to coexist with such a cultural paradigm. It would be much more likely to be present in a place where building materials broke down relatively quickly.

5. A place that has only recently become inhabited by humans.

Architecture in a place like this would probably be either made with local materials or with imported materials, but all more or less in the same architectural style, since everything would be built at the same time. Still, this lack of history is in itself a sort of history - indicating that the people are recent arrivals.

I'm sure there are other reasons why older architecture might not endure, but at this point I think it's worth pointing something out: the presence of architecture means something - and the absence of architecture also means something. So if you're creating a society and they don't have any old architecture, no problem - but make sure there's a good societal reason why it's not there. Think about where history is preserved in your society - in behaviors, in stories or written records, in artifacts or in buildings. What kinds of historical events might have influenced this world? In what kind of contexts might evidence of that history be available for discovery?

It's worth thinking about - and on that note, I think I'll include this link to some photos by Sergey Larenkov, which overlay images from World War II on images of the very same buildings from 2010.